Category Archives: Talks

Getting answers

Synopsis : Getting good answers involves asking good questions. But remember that the bees have no concept of what is ‘best’, or of the calendar.


If you’re just starting beekeeping it’s likely you will have a never-ending list of questions about the somewhat arcane and often perplexing hobby you are embarking on.

And if you’ve been beekeeping for years (or even decades) you might have the same number of questions, albeit somewhat more specialised or esoteric 1. You’ll also probably be involved in answering some of the questions from less experienced beekeepers.

Hive tools ...

Hive tools … which is the best?

Getting good quality and appropriate answers broadly depends upon three things:

  • who (or what) the question is directed at,
  • the wording of the question, and
  • whether the answer is simply factual or involves a subjective assessment

Let’s take a simple example …

Q. What is the scientific name of a bee?
A. The scientific name for the order of bees is Hymenoptera, but this encompasses many different species of bees, not just a single type of bee. To specify a particular species, a scientific name would be necessary, for example, the scientific name for a honey bee is Apis Mellifera.

… so, let’s be more specific …

Q. What is the scientific name of a honey bee?
A. The scientific name for a honey bee is Apis Mellifera.

By asking a more specific question you have received a better answer.

Unfortunately, it’s still not completely correct.

There is a convention on the capitalisation of scientific names; the name of the genus (in this case Apis) is always capitalised, but the name of the particular species (mellifera; meaning honey-bearing) should start with a lowercase letter.

The correct answer should therefore be Apis mellifera.

Or what?

You may have noticed the who (or what) in the list above. The ‘or what’ was deliberate because, increasingly these types of questions will be answered, not by humans or beekeepers 2, but by a machine.

In fact, the two questions and answers shown above were answered by a machine … in this case one called ChatGPT. In this post, ChatGPT responses are shown in red text. The only reason you may not have heard of ChatGPT 3, released just 2 months ago, was because you’ve been living as a hermit in the Tora Bora cave complex for the last few years.

If ChatGPT is new to you then you’re going to have ample opportunity to experience it – or its successors – in the next few months and years. ChatGPT is described as a chatbot which has been trained through supervised and reinforcement learning. It can do a range of things that are a lot more impressive than not quite getting the scientific name of honey bees correct … it can compose music, write computer code and pass written exams for medicine. It can produce essays and it is causing considerable concern in education, where students are already using it for homework 4.

Perhaps I’ll save myself some late night writing by asking ChatGPT to do my homework …

Write a 500 word article for beekeepers about hive tools and Taranov swarm control, remembering to include a handful of poor quality puns and some truly shocking, punctuation.

I asked it to do this … it generates the answer in less than a minute. I’ve added the answer as a separate page as I don’t want to get even more distracted from the topic of the post today.

Factual inaccuracies

ChatGPT does OK on the poor puns (beeeing, buzz-worthy etc.) but less well on the shoddy punctuation, unless you count the Oxford comma.

It does much less well on Taranov swarm control. Indeed, I had started by asking it to “Describe how to conduct swarm control using the Taranov method” and received the following answer:

The Taranov method is a technique used for swarm control in beekeeping that involves manipulating the hive to prevent swarming. The process begins by identifying a colony that is likely to swarm and removing any queen cells, which are the cells that contain developing queen bees. Next, the beekeeper will divide the colony by removing a section of comb with eggs and young larvae, and placing it in a new hive box. This creates a population imbalance in the original hive, which triggers the bees to start raising new queen bees. Finally, the beekeeper will monitor the hive to ensure that no new queen cells are forming, and will continue to remove them as they appear. This method aims to reduce the likelihood of swarming, by keeping the colony balanced and preventing the development of new queen bees.

Which is almost completely wrong. I’m not going to describe Taranov swarm control, but it’s not that. If you want to know (and it is an intriguing method, though not one I have used) I suggest you ask an experienced beekeeper, not a machine. It requires a simple, correct, factual answer.

Subjective or qualified answers

The other thing ChatGPT is not good at is answering questions that require some experience and/or may be subjective. For example …

Q. What is the best type of beehive for a beginner?
A. For a beginner, the Langstroth beehive is considered the best option due to its standardized dimensions, ease of management, and wide availability of equipment and accessories. Additionally, it is commonly used by many beekeepers and has a strong community of support and resources available.

… OK, what about something even more important?

Q. What is the best type of hive tool for beekeeping?
A. A J-shaped hive tool is widely considered as one of the best for beekeeping. It is versatile, durable and can be used for a variety of tasks such as prying apart beehive boxes, scraping propolis and wax, and removing frames.

The first answer actually isn’t bad, particularly if you are in the US. However, the justification is a little odd and could equally well be applied to a National, Dadant 5 or Layens hive.

The ‘best hive’-type question is one commonly asked by beginners and one where a better question improves the answer. If you instead ask ChatGPT for the best beehive for a beginner in the UK it recommends a National hive (justified by compatibility).

However, the answer ChatGPT gives to the ‘best hive tool’ question is clearly wrong.

Simply the best … no contest!

Anyone with even passing experience of opening a hive knows that the claw-type hive tool is by far and away the most practical, comfortable and good looking 😉 .

The ’widely considered’ in ChatGPT’s answer is the giveaway. It’s (obviously) never used a hive tool and so cannot speak from experience.

Flame wars

The examples above are trivial but they do show both the abilities and shortcomings of ChatGPT. But it will get better – more accurate, more factually correct, better at providing qualified subjective answers (and hiding the fact that it has no direct experience of any of the things it is comparing).

You’d better get used to it as it will revolutionise our interactions – direct or indirect – with computers; websites, discussion forums, computer programming, teaching, student assessment and – increasingly – creative work as well.

It’s going to put a lot of people out of work 🙁 .

I’m already out of work, so I don’t feel too threatened, but perhaps it’s also going to eventually replace the beekeeping blogger.

As an aside, I thought a ChatGPT-powered ‘user’ on a beekeeping discussion forum like Beesource in the US, or the BeekeepingForum here in the UK would be – at least briefly – entertaining. Some of the discussion threads on these can get really out of hand, even with strict moderation (a thankless task).

ChatGPT can already interact conversationally, its command of the subject and of English (and, of course, a range of other languages) is already better than many readers/contributors, and it would be a whole lot more persistent in an online argument (though it is currently not particularly creative when it comes to insults).

It’s going to render many of these discussion forums worthless and is already banned from some of the computing forums. The scientific journal Nature has established ground rules for its use – it cannot ‘share’ authorship (!), its use in data analysis must be documented etc.

I already find many discussion forums unrewarding … they might get a lot worse, at least in the short term. Since many beginners use them a lot, I thought it was worth mentioning.

Better answers

Although I’ve been wandering some way off topic there are some important points embedded in the first half of this post.

The question you ask influences the answer you get.

In beekeeping, your local environment and your latitude are particularly influential in the lives of your bees.

I gave a talk this evening on queen rearing. One of the questions was ‘How early in the season can I start?’

That’s a perfectly good and valid question, but answering it requires knowing something about the local climate and colony development.

It also varies from year to year … for example, a cold spring delays things.

Some might simply answer ‘mid-May’ or ‘late-April’ … indeed, questions like that may be asked by someone wanting a calendar-based answer.

Unfortunately, beekeeping isn’t that simple. Beekeepers on the UK south coast can often start queen rearing two months before I can here in north west Scotland.

My answer involved something about drone availability. A drone takes 24 days to develop and a few days after that to become sexually mature. Studies have shown that the peak of drone brood production occurs about one month before swarming (Page and Erickson, 1988), though production starts earlier.

And the correct answer is …

So a better answer is to keep an eye on your colonies, observe drone brood production increasing and – 3-4 weeks later (or perhaps a little before 6 ) – start your queen rearing with every expectation the bees will have got the timing about right.

Shallow depth of field

One of many …

In a cold spring they’ll start producing drones later, at a more southerly latitude they’ll produce drones much earlier than they will in northern Scotland.

Yes, the answer is more difficult to understand than ‘the 19th of April’, but it’s much more likely to be correct because it is based on an understanding of the biology of the bees.

It’s also likely to be correct most years. You can test this by keeping notes. You’ll then have something to refer back to next year and the one after that, and you’ll be able to answer, with compelling authority, anyone who asks you the same question 😉 .

In about 30 years you’ll be able to review your notes – of drone production and queen rearing successes – and see whether the timing needs revising 🙂 .

In doing that you’ll have completed the transition from seeking a calendar-based response, to understanding the drivers that determine colony development and reproduction, and end up with an answer that is generically applicable, qualified and based upon personal experience.

Expect biased answers

My preference for a particular type of hive tool is based upon personal experience (and unrelated to the fact that I bought 20 of them very cheaply a decade ago). Do not underestimate the importance of personal experience in answering beekeeping questions … or its ability to generate biased, unqualified or even completely incorrect answers.

Ask three experienced beekeepers a question and you’ll get five answers … one will be completely wrong, another will involve ‘brood and a half’ (also wrong … obviously), a third will answer a different question altogether and the final two will express diametrically opposing views about whether the J-shaped or claw-shaped hive tool is ‘best’.

The answer you get is based upon the experience of whoever you ask … and how willing they are to answer.

Be warned, it’s not unusual for the most (usefully) experienced and the most vociferous beekeepers to be different individuals. In fact, it’s not unusual for the most vociferous to be much less experienced than they sound.

For a subject as practical as beekeeping, practical experience is far, far more valuable than ‘knowledge’ gleaned from the internet (after all, you might have been reading something written by ChatGPT).

I know the difference between the Miller and Hopkins methods for queen rearing. I’ve not used either (yet) so I don’t know which is better – either outright, or in particular circumstances.

This can all be a bit overwhelming as a beginner … use your judgement, listen, check some of the answers in a good book 7 or a reputable online source, ask a follow-up question.

Nobody knows all the answers and it sometimes feels as though the more knowledge you acquire, the more questions appear.

Answer your own questions; observation and understanding

There is no ‘best’ hive, or 8 hive tool. The bees don’t care and – through experience – you’ll find what suits your beekeeping.

It’s likely that the ‘best’ anything in beekeeping – bee, hive tool, hive, smoker, forage, honey, hive stand, extractor, queen excluder etc. – is a meaningless concept.

It’s an irrelevant question as far as bees are concerned. There may be good ones and bad ones, but it’s surprising how tolerant and accommodating the bees – and a beekeeper – can be.

I’d strongly recommend that anyone starting beekeeping ignores articles with the word ‘best’ in them – except perhaps this one.

Ask meaningful questions and look for insightful answers.

The ‘when to start queen rearing?’ is a good – albeit incomplete – question and I suggested how I would (or did) answer it above.

In that example it is really by observing and understanding the bees that you answer the question. I think those are two of the most important skills to acquire as a beekeeper; doing so will always help you get better answers, not least because they help answer them yourself.

Asking an experienced beekeeper gets you part way there but it doesn’t come close to working something out yourself.

Do an experiment

I used the word ‘arcane’ in one of the opening sentences. It means mysterious, obscure or little understood. Despite sounding a little like the word archaic – meaning old fashioned or belonging to an earlier period – it has a totally different etymology. Arcane is derived from the Latin arcānus meaning ‘closed or shut up’, whereas archaic is from the Greek ἀρχαϊκός for ‘ancient’.

Nevertheless, bits of beekeeping are both arcane and archaic.

Sometimes they’re ‘old fashioned’ because experience has shown that a particular method works reliably well, so is promoted and becomes widely used. However, sometimes it’s because ”it’s always been done like that” and everyone unquestioningly follows the approach without asking whether there are other – perhaps better – ways of achieving something.

Let’s take a trivial example … starter strips in foundationless frames.

Beautiful …

A foundationless frame is a frame containing no foundation (helpfully, the clue is in the name) . Every foundationless frame you use saves you about £1.40 based upon the current price of foundation. What’s more, because commercial foundation contains miticide residues, every frame you use reduces traces of miticides in your hive.

And, if you read online about making foundationless frames you’ll find lots of descriptions, many of which include instructions to provide a wax, or waxed, starter strip attached under the top bar for the bees to start drawing comb from.

When I started using foundationless frames I – unquestioningly – followed these instructions, cutting 2 cm strips of commercial foundation and nailing them in place in my frames.

Foundationless frame

And they often fell out … which prompted me to ask a question I should have done in the first place, and to do an experiment.

Ask the bees

Where do bees naturally start drawing comb?

Wherever the swarm ends up. If it’s in a previously unoccupied tree hole, or loft space, there are no convenient strips of wax foundation to be used as guides. The cavity may be completely empty.

Clearly they don’t need a starter strip to work from.

However, the beekeeper does not want the bees to build comb totally haphazardly. We want them to stick within the confines of the frame or it becomes impossible to manipulate. It’s therefore useful to provide them with ‘guides’ on where to start … they might not follow them, but they almost always do.

So, by understanding what the bees do naturally, qualified by our own selfish interests in managing the colony, we can ask the bees what suits them … a strip of wax foundation, a waxed wooden guide or a lollipop stick.

And, having worked out which the bees prefer, we can make a decision based upon what also suits us.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

I therefore did a simple experiment. I built a dozen or so foundationless frames, each containing three randomly positioned starter strips under the top bar – one third wax foundation, one third waxed wood and one third plain wooden lollipop stick (or ‘tongue depressors’).

Over the course of a season I used these in a variety of colonies and observed which of the starter strips was preferred … indicated by which the bees chose first, or which they avoided.

And the results are in …

It made no difference at all. There was no correlation between the type of starter strip and use by the bees.

They just don’t care.

So I only now use plain wooden starter strips. They are quicker and easier to prepare, impervious to the steam wax extractor and much more robust. I use them in full hives and in my mini-nucs for queen mating, simply gluing the wood in place.

Kieler mini-nuc topbar frames – no need for foundation or waxing

A little understanding of what the bees do, coupled with a little experimentation and some observation, allowed me work out the answer to the question ’What is the best material for starter strips’ 9.

I should note that many other have reached exactly the same conclusion independently. I’m not claiming to have discovered this first, but I did formally test what the bees preferred.

Some ChatGPT creativity to end with

To finish I thought I’d ask ChatGPT to do something creative.

Rather than eliciting incorrect answers about Taranov swarm control I asked it for a poem, in the form of a haiku 10, about honey bee swarms;

Golden bees swarm forth
Honeyed scent on the breeze
Nature’s sweet bounty.

Not bad 🙂


Page, R.E., and E. H. Erickson, Jr. (1988) Reproduction by Worker Honey Bees (Apis mellifera L.). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 23: 117–126 Accessed February 3, 2023. Note: this might not be accessible online, so you could try this instead – Page, R.E. Jr (1982) The seasonal occurrence of honey bee swarms in north-central California. American Bee Journal 121:266-272.


Learn from my mistakes

Synopsis : It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Here are some related ones of mine and the lessons I (again) learned from them.


This is the 50th post of the year. Usually 1 this is the week in which I write some erudite words 2 about the season in retrospect.

What went well, what could have gone better and what was an unmitigated disaster. The highs and the lows, together with a smattering of the in-between bits that actually constitute the majority of the beekeeping year.

Writing these review-type posts is quite enjoyable 3. I have to go back through my hive notes which inevitably brings back a flood of memories of warmer days, heavy supers, lost hive tools and unmated queens.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

These notes are succinct – rarely more than ~10-20 words – littered with acronyms but surprisingly informative. At least they are when you take into account their dates and the timing of the development cycle of workers, drones and queens.

And, as a bonus, they are also legible.

Hive records

I’ve mentioned before that I take my hive inspections records on a digital recorder in the apiary and then transfer them to a spreadsheet with the company of a coffee 4 later.

Testing, testing, one, two three

Whilst this approach misses the immediacy of a scribbled note on a sheet of paper under the hive roof, it does allow me to easily refresh my memory before the next apiary visit.

It also means they don’t blow away, get damp, eaten by slugs or require me to have a functioning pen in my beesuit … the recorder lives in the bee bag, so is always available.

By looking at the hive records in advance I’m reminded that – for example – I need more supers for hives #23 and #27, that the former had a good open queen cell on frame 7 (OC/7 in the notes) which should now be sealed 5 and that nuc #13 has a recently mated queen who will need finding (!), clipping and marking.

And by looking at the same records in mid-December, with the temperature plummeting outside, I can see how the season progressed week-by-week in my three main apiaries.

The nuc was sold a fortnight later, the queen in #23 eventually emerged but was lost before she got mated (or perhaps on her way back) and supers filled so rapidly that I regretted not adding more at once.

It was a great year for honey, the best since returning to Scotland in 2015.

But that can wait until the review of the season … which will now be next week 6.

Impressions vs. reality

I give a lot of talks on beekeeping. Whilst a talk might be about bait hives, swarm control or queen rearing, the questions afterwards can be more wide-ranging. It is quite fun to get questions on apparently random beekeeping topics (I’ve done ’ask the expert’ 7 panels at beekeeping conventions which are enjoyable; for one question and four panel members you get six different answers and a good-natured argument … no wonder we run out of time).

Some of the more ‘left field’ questions can be a challenge and require a degree of lateral thinking. I’m more than happy to acknowledge that I’m sometimes stumped for an answer … I understand the question, but I cannot explain why whatever happened 8, er, happened.

However, the very fact that I’m asked for an opinion at all suggests that I give the impression I know what I’m talking about 9 when it comes to almost any subject about honey bees.

I don’t.

Hive inspections

Even if you just restrict the topic to the hive, its contents and what’s happening in it on a week-to-week basis, the apparent impression some have of my understanding can be wildly different from reality.

I know that because of my hive notes.

And I’m acutely aware of this because I’ve just re-read them … 😉 .

Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair. If you read the entries for any individual week in isolation it’s clear I sometimes don’t have a scooby 10 what’s happening in the hive.

It’s obvious because as well as acronyms there’s a dusting of ??? throughout the notes 11.

Not every hive and certainly not every week (thankfully), but more often than I’d like.

However, the regular repeat visits combined with the utter predictability of honey bee development, and comparison with adjacent hives, usually allows me to work out what’s happening with some certainty.

I think the take home message 12 here is that hive notes are very useful. Even if you don’t quite understand what’s happening in the hive, record what you see.

At the next visit, or the one after that, it should start to make sense.

And, when you re-read them in midwinter with the benefit of knowing what happened time, tea and a roaring stove, you’ll at least learn what to do in the same situation next year.

Or what not to do 🙁 .

Train wreck

But, there remains this disconnect between that impression of insightful understanding and the day-to-day reality of some of my apiary visits.

These are are not always as polished and assured as I’d like …

Photo by Roberto Prusso from 1913

… frankly, they can sometimes be a bit of a train wreck.

I trip over or drop stuff 13 .

I reassemble the hive leaving the queen in a JzBz cage in my pocket.

Hives are inspected in the wrong order, meaning I might have to re-open one again to the understandable irritation of the bees.

I leave the hive tool inside a hive and can’t find another, or put it in the wrong pocket of my beesuit so it falls through the hole, down the inside of the leg and into my boot.

An elusive unmarked queen is found on my third run through the brood box … at exactly the same time as I find a suicidally psychotic worker inside my veil. I have insufficient hands to hold the frame, the queen and the worker (though, truth be told, I’m probably not intending to just ’hold’ the worker if she’s that agitated). The queen is abandoned until the following week.

When I fail to find her altogether.

Or, I do and she dies as I pick her up.

Composed and unruffled

Thankfully, not every apiary visit is like that.

Many are reassuringly ‘composed and unruffled’; I open the box, the bees are wonderfully calm. The queen is on the second frame I check, but the first had eggs anyway so I didn’t need to see her. However, since I found her and she’s mated and laying well, I mark her and clip her wing. The colony barely notice her absence and I run her gently back in between two brood frames to get on with her business.

Returning a marked and clipped queen – not distressed, just sauntering down between the frames

This is the beekeeper I’d like to always be … not that other ham-fisted muppet in an ill-fitting beesuit.

Here are a couple of queen-related examples from the season just gone. At the time I was flummoxed. In retrospect I’ve learned a few important lessons.

Or re-learned those that I had been taught already … and subsequently forgotten 😉 .

A tale of several queens

Almost all of my swarm control these days uses the nucleus method. In comparison to the widely-taught Pagden artificial swarm it only requires an additional nuc box. In my experience, it is almost totally foolproof as long as:

  • you take care to only leave a single queen cell in the hive; remember, this requires a visit one week after removing the queen. They cannot swarm if you leave just one cell.
  • you don’t make the nuc too strong; if you do there’s a chance it might swarm anyway.

My colony #7 contained an ageing but really lovely queen. I’d used her last year for queen rearing and hoped to do so again. At the start of May I’d obviously tempted fate by noting … ’Strong. Lovely BP. PC only … graft next week’ 14.

Lovely BP (brood pattern)

And, of course, the next week (the 8th of May) there were a couple of big, fat, 3-4 day old (i.e. open) queen cells and it was clear they were making plans to vamoose. I made up a nuc (number #47) with the old queen and moved her to a distant apiary.

One cell was left in box #7.

This box had overwintered with a nadired super and the original queen had snuck down in April and laid it up. Irritatingly, she’d chosen the frames of drone comb … not the end of the world because the queen was so good, but I didn’t want the new queen to do a repeat performance so moved the super above the queen excluder (QE). I discussed this in Early season inspections back in April – go there for all the gory details.

Upper entrances

Drones emerging above a QE is a recipe for carnage as they try and squeeze through 15, so I added a thin eke that included an upper entrance. The drones could fly from this and, in due course, they did.

Hive with an upper entrance

In the meantime, the new queen should have emerged and got mated … but she was nowhere to be found. There were polished cells in the brood box and the colony was behaving as though it was queenright.

On the 12th of June I decided to give it ’one more week’ and, eventually, I then found her in the supers on the 19th, together with several frames of open brood.


Since there was no sealed brood she had presumably been slow getting mated and only started within the last week or so. I clipped and marked her and returned her to the brood box.

But she didn’t stay long.

My notes on the 21st of July include the comment ’no eggs’ (there had been on the 12th) and at the end of the month I found a new laying queen in the box.

She’s still there … or was when I last checked the colony (’lovely, well-tempered bees’ I was pleased to record in my notes) in mid-September. I presume the previous one hadn’t been ‘up to scratch’ and so was superseded sometime in mid-July .

Lessons learned

When I removed the supers (unsurprisingly disappointingly light 🙁 ) and the plastic QE I found the latter had a couple of cracks in it. Although these didn’t result in any gaping holes, it’s possible the QE deformed sufficiently to let the queen through.

Lesson No. 1 – try and avoid using those inexpensive cheap plastic QE’s. A framed, wired excluder costs less than three jars of honey and is a good investment. I bought more at the start of this season, but still didn’t have enough.

You know it makes sense

However, I suspect the queen didn’t get into the supers through the QE.

I expect she instead returned from her last mating flight and entered the hive via the upper entrance. It’s not at all unusual for returning queens to end up in the wrong hive altogether, so simply mistaking an upper for the lower entrance is understandable.

Lesson No. 2 – ideally avoid upper entrances altogether on hives containing virgin queens, or at least orientate them to the opposite side of the hive.

What happened to the nuc?

The original queen was moved to another apiary in nuc #47 created during swarm control. A fortnight later (22/5/22) they were moved to a full hive 16 and three weeks later (12/6/22) I found a single charged queen cell in the middle of a central frame.

Although I suspected supersedure (ageing queen, single QC etc.) I’d seen the queen and she was still laying well. I therefore transferred the frame with the open cell to a neighbouring queenless and poorly tempered hive in the same apiary. She emerged, was mated and laying well by late July … and is heading the colony through this winter.

However, back to hive #47 … they attempted to swarm ~10 days later. Since the queen was clipped the swarm returned to the hive, but the queen was lost 🙁 .

I knocked back all but one of the charged open cells and guesstimated that she would emerge on the 6/7th of July. On my next inspection (on the 5th), the queen was quacking in the cell 17. My maths suggested she should be mated around the 20th but I didn’t open the box again until the last day of July when I found her laying well.

And it was about then that things started to go ‘pear-shaped’ 18.

Hands like feet

I fumbled the first couple of attempts at picking up the queen to mark her.

In my defence … it had been a long afternoon. This was the last of about 15 colonies I’d inspected and the supers were very heavy. It was hot, the sun was bright and I was really tired.

I’d removed the supers and set them aside, lifted the QE and found the unmarked laying queen after just a couple of minutes.

The first attempt at picking her up was pretty reasonable, albeit unsuccessful, but the second was badly botched. She skittered across the frame, clambering over and under the workers without giving them a chance to move aside.

Lesson No. 3 – when it comes to picking up queens, if at first (or at the most, second attempt) you don’t succeed, do not ’try, try and try again’. Close the box, leave her for another day when both she and you will be calmer.

Of course, I persevered 🙁 .

On the third attempt she took off, seemingly in slow motion, but still too fast for me. She circled around, briefly landed on my shoulder, lifted off again and then – like Baron von Richthofen – was obscured by the dazzling sun.

I never saw her again.

But it gets worse …

I’ve had queens fly off before. In my experience they often (perhaps over 50% of the time) manage to return to the hive. They fly poorly and often crash land in the grass. It’s therefore important not to stampede about like a herd of wildebeest, but instead to calmly reassemble the hive and quietly retreat.

Ideally without moving your feet.

I managed the former but not the latter, cursing my failure to learn from ‘Lesson No. 3’ … it is not the first time that I’ve attended that lesson 🙁 .

I rarely inspect hives in August. This hive was on the other side of Scotland and I didn’t open it again until I removed the supers during the summer honey harvest at the end of the month. With only one and a bit filled supers there were relatively few bees above the QE … but there was a queen.

At least, there was evidence that there had been a queen present as there was a ~5 cm patch of brood on opposing faces of two of the super frames.

Small patch of brood – all of about the same age – in a super

I didn’t see the queen, and only discovered the brood as I shook the bees off the frames to remove them for extraction.

It was a patch of similarly aged brood; there were no younger larvae or eggs, and only a few cells were capped. It must have been laid 7-9 days previously.

Remember, I’d not opened the hive in the last 23 days.

There was no upper entrance and the QE was wired. 

And the final lesson today

I ended up uniting the hive over a QE with a known queenright colony. I simply laid some newspaper over the top bars of the latter, added a QE to hold it in place and added the ’is-there-or-isn’t-there-a-queen-in-this-box?’ upper brood box onto which I shook the bees from the remaining super frames.

Newspaper and queen excluder

I do not understand the brood in the super.

The brood pattern indicated it was laid by a queen (rather than laying workers – in which case it would be scattered all around the frame). However, the age of the brood suggested she had only laid for a day or so. The brood looked like worker, but I didn’t photograph the frame until it was back in the extracting room and it was a bit bashed about by then.

My best guess is that the queen that flew away landed back on top of the open stack of supers next to the hive. However, that was over three weeks earlier. If it was the original laying queen that I’d failed to mark (or even pick up) then why didn’t she continue laying at the same rate?

Why the fortnight’s hiatus?

And why did she stop laying having only just started?

I’m afraid we’ll never know.

Which doesn’t mean that there’s not a lesson from this sorry debacle:

Lesson No. 4 – if a mated and laying queen does fly off, check the hive again one week later. If she’s back she’ll be laying and all will be well. If she’s missing in action there will be queen cells, but no remaining larvae young enough to rear queens from. Knock back all the cells you don’t want and let them get on with things 19.

One final queen

If you rewind about 1500 words you might remember that I found two good open queen cells in box #7. The one I didn’t leave in that hive I used to requeen an adjacent hive (#6).

Waste not, want not 😉 .

A week previous I’d already started swarm control on colony #6 by removing the queen to a nuc. I’d intended to let them requeen themselves 20 but the availability of a good queen cell from much better stock was too good an opportunity to miss.

I knocked back all the queen cells in hive #6, confident that there were no larvae young enough start as queens.

I added the frame from #7 with the queen cell and she emerged on about the 17th of May. She was mated and laying well by the 12th of June … probably earlier but I hadn’t checked at the intervening visit as I’d been taking three full supers of spring honey from the hive. I got a further three full supers of summer honey 9 weeks later.

The bees are well tempered and productive. They went into the winter very strong … headed by the same queen.

Sometimes, actually most of the time, everything ’just works’ 🙂 .

And a final word

The tale of misadventures recounted above was probably the only truly shambolic part of my beekeeping year in 2022 21. It was just a coincidence that it all originated from one hive. Some of it was self-inflicted, but other bits were just dumb luck.

Shambolic, but not catastrophic, and it all ended OK.

And I learned some valuable lessons.

Again 🙂 .


The opening quote, It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes”, is attributed to Warren Buffet

A few readers signed up to receive notifications either about new posts or comments added to the post last week will have received repeat emails sometime on Tuesday evening. These were seemingly due to a hiccup in the server software and outside my control. With thanks to those who brought this to my attention, and apologies to the recipients. The current commenting and notification software is becoming ‘unfit for purpose’ due to subscriber numbers. I have plans to change, both along with some other developments, sometime next year.

Winter projects

Synopsis : Now is the time to make plans for the long winter ahead; frame building, winter projects, some light reading or an escape to somewhere warmer and with better wine?


The good late summer September weather 1 has been replaced with the first of the equinoctial gales. Actually, more of a 30-40 mph stiff breeze with an inch or two of rain than a real gale. Nevertheless, wet and windy enough to preclude any outdoor jobs, and instead make my thoughts turn to winter projects.

The more northerly (or southerly) the latitude, the longer the winter is. Here in north west Scotland there’s virtually no practical beekeeping to be done between the start of October and early/mid April i.e. over 6 months of the year.

Some beekeepers fill these empty months by taking a busman’s holiday … disappearing to Chile or New Zealand or somewhere equally warm and pleasant, where they can talk beekeeping – or even do some beekeeping – and, coincidentally 2 enjoy some excellent wines.

Santiago bee graffiti

Santiago, Chile, bee graffiti …

Others ignore bees and beekeeping for the entire winter and think (and do) something completely different. They build model railways, or practise their ju-jitsu or – if really desperate – catch up on all the household chores that were abandoned during the bee season.

They then start the following season relatively unprepared. Almost certainly, next season will be similar to last season. They’ll make similar mistakes, run out of frames mid-season and lose more swarms than they’d like.

Rinse and repeat.

Alternatively, with a little thought, some reading, a bit of effort and some pleasant afternoons in the shed/garage/lounge, they can both plan for the season ahead and prepare some of the kit that they might need.

As Benjamin Franklin said ”By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Looking back to look forward

I’ve discussed beekeeping records previously (and should probably revisit the topic). My records in the early years were terse, patchy, illegible and of little real use, perhaps other than in the few days that separated colony inspections.

Better than nothing

Better than nothing … just.

My records now are equally terse, but up-to-date and reasonably informative. I’ve got a numbering system for my colonies and queens that means they can be tracked through the season. The records are dated (rather than ’last Friday’) so I can calculate when important events – like queen emergence or mating – are due.

They’re also legible, which makes a huge difference. I could just about read my old scrawled pencil notes a few days after an inspection, but would have had no chance 5 months later.

By which time I’d have lost the little notebook anyway.

So, at some point over the next few months – sooner rather than later – I’ll look through my records, update the ‘queen pedigree’ table 3 and summarise things for the season ahead.

In the spring I’ll update a new sheet of records with a short note on overwintering strength/success and then we’ll be ready to go.

But, in reviewing the records I’ll remind myself about the things I ran out of, the timing of swarm control (when there’s the maximum pressure on available kit) and ideas I might have noted down on how things could have been done better 4.

Reading and listening

The winter is a great time to catch up on a bit of theory. Some beekeepers do exam after exam, pouring over Yates’s Study Notes until they can recite chapters verbatim.

I’ve done enough exams in my lifetime for … a lifetime, and have no intention of doing any more.

However, I’m always happy to do a bit of reading. I’ve currently got The Native Irish Honey Bee and Joe Conti’s The Hopkins Method … (which I’ll return to shortly) by my desk. I’m also partially successfully at keeping up with some of the relevant scientific literature 5.

A larger and more enthusiastic audience than usually seen at a beekeeping talk

There are also numerous winter talks available. Some are through local associations, others are available more widely. I ‘virtually’ attended one this evening where there were questions from as far apart as Orkney and Tasmania.

Of particular relevance to Scottish beekeepers, it’s worth noting that our association membership fees are usually significantly less than south of the border (probably because your SBA membership is separate), so you can inexpensively belong to a couple of associations and benefit from their talks programmes and – if you’re lucky – Co-Op purchasing schemes 😉

My attendance at these talks is less good than it should be, largely because I give a lot of talks each winter, but I instead benefit from the Q&A sessions which can be both entertaining and informative.

OK … enough theory

Theory is all well and good, but beekeeping is a practical pastime and just because it’s dark, cold, wet and windy, doesn’t mean there isn’t practical stuff you could be doing.

Competitive beekeepers will use the time to prepare the perfect wax block or bottle of mead for their – local or national – annual honey show.

I’m not competitive, and my wax is pretty shonky but I’ve had fun making (and more fun testing) mead 😉

But there are lots of other things to do …

The known knowns

By reading your comprehensive notes you will know that you ended the season with 5 colonies, that swarming started in mid-May but was over by early July, and that you’ve got one really stellar queen you’d like to raise 2-3 nucs from.

All of which means you are going to need a minimum of 60 new frames next season. These need to be ready before swarming starts.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

How did I get to 60?

About a third of brood frames should be rotated out and replaced each season (~20). The nucleus method of swarm control uses the fewest frames, but you’re likely to have to use swarm control for all your colonies (~25). Then there’s a further 15 frames for the 3 additional nucs you want to prepare. Of course, if you’ve got lots of stored drawn comb 6 or you use double brood boxes, or Pagden’s artificial swarm method these numbers will be different.

The point is, you will need extra frames next season.

I’m ending this season with about 20 colonies and so expect to need over 200 frames next year, possibly more if queen rearing goes well. Some frames will be recycled foundationless frames but others will contain normal wired foundation.

And what about supers? 2022 was a good year for honey. If you had enough supers and super frames you’ll probably be OK in an average year.

Whether it’s average or not, it’s always easier to build the frames – well-fortified with tea and cake – in the winter, rather than in a rush as you prepare to go to the apiary.

Exactly the same type of arguments apply to any other routine piece of kit – broods, supers, crownboards, roofs, clearers. Buy or assemble and prepare them in the winter.

After Tim Toady try something new

A few weeks ago I introduced the Tim Toady concept. For just about any beekeeping activity, there are numerous ways that it can be completed. There must be dozens of different methods for swarm control or queen rearing, perhaps more.

Of course, however many methods there are, all – at least all the effective ones – are based upon the basic timings of brood development and of the viable fractions of the colony. These things don’t change.

The biology of the honey bee is effectively unvarying.

Queens take 16 days to develop, drones take 32 days (from the egg) to reach sexual maturity. A queen and the flying bees are a viable fraction, as are the nurse bees and young brood etc.

Despite being based around these invariant 7 biological facts, not all swarm control or queen rearing methods are equal. Certainly, the end results might be similar, but some methods are easier, use less equipment, need less apiary visits or whatever i.e. some methods probably suit your beekeeping better than others.

My advice about this plethora of different methods to achieve the same ends remains exactly what it was a month ago … learn one method really, really well. Understand it. Become so familiar with it that you don’t need to worry about its success 8.

And then, after a bit of winter theory, plan to try something different.

And the winter is the ideal time to build any new things you might need to try this alternative method next season.

Here are a couple of my past and current winter projects.

Morris boards

Probably 90% of my queens are produced using the Ben Harden approach. It was the method I first learnt, and remains the method I’m most confident with. I’ve found it a reliable small scale method for rearing queens.

But, as they say, ’familiarity breeds attempt’ (at something new) and I’ve always liked the elegance of the Cloake board. This is a split board with an integral queen excluder and a horizontal slide. You place it between the boxes in a strong double-brood colony. By inserting the slide, opening upper front and lower rear entrances and simultaneously closing the front lower hive entrance you render the top box temporarily queenless and enable it to get stuffed with all the returning foragers 9. The queenless upper box is now in an ideal state for starting new queen cells from added grafts.

Morris board

But most of my west coast bees don’t end up as booming double brooders … the standard Cloake board needs too many bees for my location.

Parallel Cloake boards 

Which is where the Morris board comes in. It’s effectively two parallel Cloake boards. Paired with a ‘twinstock-type’ divided upper brood box (or two cedar nuc boxes) it works in the same way as the Cloake board, but only needs sufficient bees to pack a 5-frame nuc so is better suited to my native bees.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

You can buy Morris boards … or you can easily build them. This was one of my winter projects in ’20/’21. I’ve used them for the last two years successfully and have been pleased with the results.

I don’t think I understand their use as well as the Ben Harden system … but I will. In particular, I have yet to crack the sequential use of one side, then the other to rear a succession of queens.

Portable queen cell incubator

This was my one big project last winter. Unfortunately, we had a shocker 10 of a summer on the west coast and it was rarely used. I did put a few queen cells through it successfully, but queen rearing generally was hit and miss (mainly miss) so it’s yet to prove its full worth.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

This is version 2 of the incubator. I’m gradually compiling a list of opponents for version 3 11 that should correct a few things that could be improved – capacity, level of insulation, heat distribution – though the current incarnation is probably more than adequate.

Building – and testing, which actually took a lot more time – the queen cell incubator was a lot of fun. I discovered (and created 🙁 ) a series of problems that needed to be solved and, relatively inexpensively 12, enjoyed sorting them all out. I could work in my warm, well-lit workroom, drink gallons of tea, and dabble with 12V electrickery without endangering my life.

I’ve used it this season powered by a 12V transformer indoors, from an adapter in the car or from a battery with solar backup in the apiary.

However, to use it properly I need to rear more queens … which brings me to … 

Queen rearing without grafting

Both the Ben Harden and Cloake/Morris board methods of rearing queens use a suitably-prepared colony in which young larvae are presented. Typically 13 these larvae are grafted from a suitable donor colony.

Grafting is perceived by some as a ‘dark art’ – though perhaps not exactly malicious – involving a combination of sorcery, spells, fabulous eyesight and rock-steady hands 14.

It isn’t, but this perception certainly dissuades many from attempting queen rearing.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

I find grafting relatively easy and routinely expect 80-90% ‘take’ of the grafted larvae. My sorcery and spells are clearly OK. However, in the future, my eyesight and manual steadiness/dexterity are likely to decline as I get older 15.

I’ve also been reading some papers on how the colony selects larvae to develop into queens. Their strategy isn’t based upon what they can see and pick up with a 000 sable paintbrush … funny that.

I’m therefore going to try one of the graft-free methods of rearing queen cells, and the approach I intend to use is the Hopkins method. Hence the part-read copy of Joe Conti’s book mentioned earlier.

The Hopkins method of queen rearing

This method involves the presentation of a frame of suitably-aged eggs and larvae horizontally over a brood box packed with young bees. Importantly I mentioned both eggs and larvae as, under the emergency response colonies preferentially rear new queens from 3 day old eggs.

The resulting queen cells are cut from the frame and used to prime nucs or mini-nucs.

Even with my presbyopia and ’hands like feet’ I should be able to manage that 😉

The intention is to couple the Hopkins method with a 12-frame double-brood queenless nuc box which is subsequently split into several nucs for mating the new queens. And, if that wasn’t enough, I’m hoping I can integrate this with some swarm prevention for the donor colonies … time will tell.

All of that means I need some new kit 🙂

Before butchery photo … an eke being adapted for the Hopkins method of queen rearing

I purchased some Maisie’s poly nuc boxes, floors, feeders and ekes in the summer sales. In the winter I’ll spend some time butchering them with my (t)rusty Dremel ‘multi-tool’ to accommodate the horizontal brood or super frames (and a cell bar with grafts for good measure) before painting them a snazzy British racing green or Oxford blue 16.

More poly hive butchering

I’ve already done a little poly hive butchering this winter.

I’ve got about 20 Everynucs from Thorne’s. These are a thick-walled, well made nuc with a couple of glaring design flaws. However, I’m prepared to overlook these as, a) they’re relatively easy to fix, and b) they cost me a chunk of money and I’m loathe to spend at least the same amount again to replace them.

In addition, bees overwinter fantastically well in them.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

I’ve also got a few compatible feeders which are really designed for feeding syrup. You can add fondant, but the bees then need to follow a rather convoluted path to access it.

Everynuc feeder ...

Everynuc feeder …

I decided to modify the feeders to allow both by fitting a syrup-proof dam about half way along the feeder and drilling some 3-4 cm holes through the resulting ‘dry’ side of the feeder 17 .

Wooden syrup-proof dam and holes in an Everynuc feeder

Fondant, ideally in a transparent/translucent plastic food container 18 is inverted over the holes and the bees have direct access to it, even in the very coldest weather.

Munchity crunchity … direct access to the fondant

The Ashforth-type syrup feeder still works if needed and I no longer need 8 gallons just to top up each nuc 19. Typically my nucs won’t need feeding in midwinter, but if they do I should be able to position the fondant directly over the cluster allowing them the best chance of reaching it.

Winter weight

This is a practical project carried over from last year. I’m interested in the changing weight of the hive as the colony segues from ‘maintenance’ mode to early season brood rearing. I’ve drawn some cartoon graphs where there’s a clearly visible inflection point, with the hive weight dropping much faster once brood rearing starts.

Hive scales

I’m keen to have some real data rather than just my crummy cartoons. I already have the tools for the job, my no expense spared made hive scales. Tests last year showed that these were pretty accurate; I was about 8% shy of the actual weight (which doesn’t matter a jot, it’s the percentage change in weight that’s critical) and, more importantly, produced readings that were reproducible within a percent or two.

However, last year I was thwarted by bad weather, a lack of Gore-tex and an unexpected delay in evolving gills. I’ve now bought a sou’wester and, in the name of science, am preparing to brave the elements every week or so to weigh half a dozen hives.

And in between all that lot I’ll be building frames 🙂 20


The other winter project already part-completed is moving this site to a new server. Frankly this has been a bit of a palaver, but I think it’s now sorted.

If you had problems connecting over the last few evenings, apologies. If things still seem odd, slow, broken or unresponsive drop me a note in the comments or by email. Of course, if you can’t connect at all you’ll never read this postscript 🙁 .

The changes I’ve made will enable some new things to be incorporated over the next few months, once I’ve got a bit of spare time and have built all of those frames 😉

Scores on the doors

Conveniently, this final post of the year will be published on the final day of the year. This is an appropriate time to look back over the what’s happened here on The Apiarist … a sort of behind the scenes view of the posts that were popular, the posts that were unloved and the creative writing process that converts a title and a topic on a Tuesday to a perfectly honed essay garbled jumble of words on a Friday.

Precisely because the final post of the year appears on the last day of the year, any stats I mention below will exclude this post. Should 15,000 people read this post late on New Year’s Eve 1 then this page would also make it into the ‘Top of the Posts’ lists.

Hives in the snow

And, in between some of the numbers and comments below there’s likely to be a smattering of beekeeping advice or unanswered questions, just to keep you on your toes.

So … without further ado.

Read all about it

Page views, visitor numbers, those registered for email notifications etc. are all higher this year than last, by ~30%.

Going up … page views and visitor numbers graph since time began

New posts appear on Friday afternoon around 3 pm 2 and tend to get the most views on Friday evening and over the weekend, tailing off through the remainder of the week.

Some posts are then rarely read again. Others go from strength to strength, attracting readers in successive months and years. This longevity depends upon a combination of subject matter and ‘fit’ with current search engine algorithms.

Regular as clockwork

Inevitably, the popular posts are often those on ‘how to’ subjects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering this is a beekeeping site, the top posts of the year were all on either swarm control or Varroa management.

Top of the posts

These were the most read posts of the year. Tellingly, only the one in bold first appeared this year:

  1. Queen cells … don’t panic! – a title designed to attract the beginner who, having discovered their first queen cells, is now busy panicking.
  2. The nucleus method – my favoured method of swarm control. Almost idiot proof, this explains why it’s my favoured method of swarm control.
  3. Demaree swarm control – a little bit of history and another swarm control method. What’s not to like?
  4. When to treat – a post that first appeared almost 5 years ago. Most of the relevant information is now included in other posts, or summarised in the more recent – and therefore recommended – Rational Varroa control.
  5. Vertical splits and making increase – another ageing post that, by combining swarm control, making increase, requeening and running out of equipment, has something for everyone. I think this could do with updating and deconvoluting.
  6. Swarm control and elusive queens – a useful method for those who struggle to find queens. More important still is that, for beginners, if they understand WHY it works then they’re well on their way to becoming a beekeeper.
  7. Honey pricing – higher, higher! There’s loads of cheap ‘honey’ flooding the market. You are not competing with it. You have a premium product. Do NOT sell your honey cheaply.
  8. Swarm prevention – something that should have been read before items 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 in this list … but possibly wasn’t considering it was read fewer times 🙁 3
  9. Pagden’s artificial swarm – the most popular method used by beekeeping associations to completely confuse beginners (see the nucleus method above for an alternative).
  10. Oxalic acid (Api Bioxal) preparation – which is currently the most read post, proving conclusively to me that many more beekeepers need to read Rational Varroa control because many colonies will now be rearing brood (see the photo below).

Together, these 10 posts counted for about 20% of the total traffic this year. The remainder were smeared over the other 448 posts that have appeared since early 2013. 

Biscuit-coloured crumbs on the Varroa tray = brood rearing. 23rd December 2021, Ardnamurchan, Scotland

If you’ve got some spare time, show some love for Seasonal changes which only received a single visitor this year. The late September 2016 post contains a nice picture of an orchid and a bottle of honey beer.

Search and ye shall find

The majority of visitors arrive either in response to the weekly emails announcing new posts 4 or from search engine searches. The latter are nominally a valuable resource, so are not disclosed to those of us who actually write the stuff in the first place (unless we pay Google).

However, the 0.5% of searches that come from other search engines turn up a few interesting terms (my selection from hundreds, and in no particular order):

  • cbpv winter – not usually associated together as this is a virus (chronic bee paralysis virus) that usually damages very strong, crowded hives in the middle of the season.
  • diy Kenyan beehive – not something I’ve ever discussed 5 or know anything about 6.
  • how much income from beekeeping – just a bit less than not enough, but fractionally more than SFA.
  • pointers to successful queen introduction (2006) bickerstaffes honey – a really rather specific search. I wonder whether this site was any help?
  • bee hive in old norse – see ‘diy Kenyan beehives’ above, the same sentiments apply.
  • Как сделать станок для натягивания проволоки на рамки для ульев чертежи – that’s easy … you need one of these.
  • maldives beekeeper – I have one photo on the site from the Maldives which I suspect resulted in this ‘hit’. I hope the reader wasn’t disappointed 7.
  • does a virus make bees angry – actually not such a daft question. There’s a Japanese strain of Deformed wing virus called Kakugo which is supposed to cause aggression. Kakugo means readiness or preparedness.

And, of crsuoe, there wree hrdudens of saehrces wtih snlpileg errors. Mabye smoe brepkeeees olny serach for initofrmaon atfer benig stnug rltedepaey on tiehr fenirgs? 8

Some of the spelling errors were so gross that the resulting word was barely recognisable.

There were also about 8 different spellings for ‘apiarist’ … not bad for an 8 letter word 😉


Fifty two posts have appeared in 2021, each averaging 2,675 words. This is an increase of about 8% over the 2020 figures 9. In total, excluding the ~1200 comments, that’s about 139,000 words.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace … more words, more characters, less bees

For comparison, this is a bit under 25% the length of War and Peace.


Talking the talk

As well as writing too much (it has been said that) I talk too much. During 2021 I’ve given 25 talks to beekeeping associations stretching from Cornwall to Inverness 10. Audiences have ranged from about 15 to 350 and I’m very grateful to all the BKA’s who hosted me and coordinated the Q&A sessions.

Particular thanks to the associations that managed to send me the Zoom link for my presentation before the talk was supposed to start 😉 .

Although the talks were all ‘virtual’ it was good to see some old friends and to make new contacts.

Spam, spam, spam

Of the ~1200 comments I mentioned above, many are from me. I try to respond to every comment, irrespective of whether they are corrections (for which many thanks), additional insights (thanks again) or further questions 11.

Running a website, even a relatively low traffic one such as this, means you receive a lot of spam. ‘A lot’ means usually between 200 and 800 comments or emails a day. To avoid the comments section getting tainted with adverts for fake sunglasses or dodgy prescription drugs 12 I manually ‘approve’ every comment that appears.


This isn’t as onerous as it sounds. I run spam filters that trap the vast majority of the unwanted spam.

This filtering is not 100% accurate … if you previously posted a comment and it never appeared then it may have fallen foul of these filters. Next time avoid mentioning that you were wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses when you inspected the colony 😉

It’s a rather sad indictment of the internet that I sometimes receive the same amount of spam in one day as I receive in valid comments in one year 🙁

You’ve got mail

The comments and questions – whether to posts or talks – are often very interesting. After all, I may have delivered the same talk three times in the last month, but the questions will always be different. I’ve touched on this previously in Questions & Answers.

Some questions are direct, relevant and on-topic. These are usually easy to understand and answer, though they may not be easy to answer correctly.

But there two other types of question:

  • Rambling, incoherent and vague … almost always lacking some essential information, like location. These often start with a detailed description of the last three colony inspections and end with something about Nosema or polycarbonate crownboards. There may not even be a question mark …
  • Direct – verging on blunt – and totally off-topic. It’s not unusual to prepare 2,500 carefully crafted 13 words on rational Varroa control to then receive the question ”What is the recipe for thick syrup?”.

In addition to comments/questions to posts and talks I receive a lot of email. If you emailed me this year and I failed to answer promptly then it’s probably because there were 50 other unanswered emails I’d yet to wade through.

With the volume becoming unmanageable I’ve started ignoring the very terse emails requesting a quick response (because the sender is ‘busy’ and wants the answer before they leave for the apiary/office/school run/anger management class) like “What is the recipe for thick syrup”.

The few who send adverts for their quack solutions to Varroa (often vaguely disguised as informed questions) or abuse – you’d be surprised, I was – are both ignored and blocked.

Life is too short …

New topics and old chestnuts

Beekeeping is a fantastically diverse activity 14. From the single hive owner to huge commercial operations, from the hive-monitoring techno-geeks to the leave-alone organic types, from honey to venom … there really is something for everyone.

It’s therefore no surprise that there is never a shortage of topics to cover. This is particularly true when you also include some of the wonderful 15 science of honey bees.

Web of Science publications on “honey bees” since 1997

I’ve covered some beekeeping topics exhaustively and get little satisfaction from re-writing the same thing differently 16. However, these are the topics that often attract the most readers – presumably many of whom are new beekeepers.

I’m not too fussed about the reader numbers, but if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing something I do want it to be read 17.

I’m currently wondering about how to achieve a balance between what might be considered the ‘basics’ and some of the more advanced – and to me (after a lot of beekeeping) much more interesting – topics.

And I’m always happy to consider new topics if you think I’ve missed something 18.

The writing process

I usually accumulate ideas on long car journeys, while walking in the hills, out on the loch or during interminable meetings. They might start as little more than a title and a reference, or a sentence of text.

Seeking inspiration for new articles for The Apiarist

I rarely have anything actually written by the weekend before the post appears, though I will usually have decided on the topic.

This post is being written on a Tuesday, but late – often very late – on a Thursday is more typical.

Two to four hours is usually sufficient for most posts, though additional time is needed if there are custom figures or graphs.

It’s very useful to then leave the draft for a few hours after ‘finishing’ it.

I usually abandon the keyboard by 2 am on Friday and look again first thing the following morning. Typos are caught, my awful punctuation is largely fixed and some of the more garbled sentences are rewritten in English 19.

And then I press ‘Submit’.

Flat white, cappuccino, ristretto, latte macchiato and affogato

And all of those activities – the thinking, the writing and the proof-reading – are fuelled by a delicious and fulfilling combination of strong coffee and pizza.

I’d therefore like to again thank the supporters who have ‘Bought Me a Coffee’ during 2021. In particular I’d like to acknowledge the repeat supporters. In addition to facilitating my nocturnal writing marathons, this support has also enabled moving the site to a more powerful (and properly backed up and appreciably more expensive) server.

Thank you

The future

I’m looking forward to the year ahead for many reasons. I expect 20 to have a lot more time for my bees and beekeeping. In the meantime, I’ll probably write about some of my immediate plans in the next week or two.

Winter-flowering gorse, December 2021

The size and complexity of this website – hundreds of posts and thousands of images – is starting to make it both difficult and time-consuming to maintain. It’s a dynamic site, the pages being generated on the fly when your web browser requests them. There’s a significant performance cost to retaining these dynamic features, and the underlying software is bloated and a target for hackers.

I’m therefore considering alternatives that make my life a little easier and your browsing experience a little faster. One way to achieve this is to use what is termed a static site. Anyone who has looked up details of my online talks (which has ~16 images and ~2500 words, so broadly comparable to a Friday post) will have used one of these. This technology is becoming increasingly common for blogs. I still need to resolve how to retain the comments/discussion features.

I’m also keen to explore some more expansive topics.

Even ~2500 (or more) words is insufficient to do some subjects justice; the impact of honey bees/beekeeping on solitary bees and other pollinators, neonicotinoids, fake honey, the prospects for Varroa-resistant bees, more advanced methods of queen rearing etc.

Real honey … not the product of unspecified EU and non-EU countries

How do I tackle these?

Should I write less and not explore the subject fully?

Write in instalments?

Or just not bother?

What do you think?

And while you ponder that and some of the other points raised above I’m going to enjoy the last few hours of 2021 and close by wishing all readers of, and contributors to, this site the Very Best for 2022.

May your supers be heavy, your queens fecund, your bees well-tempered and your swarms … from someone else 😉

Happy New Year


The phrase [the] Scores on the doors originated from the panel show The Generation Game hosted by Larry Grayson between 1978 and 1982. However, it was subsequently appropriated to indicate the public display of food hygiene ratings.

If you arrived here from @Twitter then you might be wondering what omphaloskepsis is. It means navel-gazing as an aid to meditation. Readers with a classical education will recognise its derivation from the Ancient Greek for navel and contemplation. Scrabble players will be disappointed it doesn’t contain more high scoring consonants.

Frequently asked questions

The 2020/21 winter has been very busy with online talks to beekeeping associations. I’m averaging about five a month, with only the fortnight over Christmas and New Year being a bit quieter. 

When chatting to the organisers of these talks it’s clear that they are getting increasingly successful 1. Audience numbers are encouragingly high as people become more familiar with online presentations.

Beekeepers know they can lounge around in their pyjamas drinking wine, chat with their friends before and after the talk 2, and listen to a beekeeping presentation … a sort of lockdown multitasking.

Some of you that spend hours each day on Zoom will know exactly what I’m talking about 😉

I still lament the absence of homemade cakes, but I suspect the online format is here to stay. At least for some associations, or at least some of the winter programme each year. 

Talking to myself

There’s little point in doing science unless you tell others about it and, as as a scientist, I have presented at invited seminars and conferences for my entire career. 

Some readers will be familiar with public speaking in one form or another. They’ll be familiar with the frisson of excitement that precedes stepping up to the podium in a large auditorium. 

Assuming there’s a large audience filling the large auditorium of course 😉

Those with little experience of speaking might wish the audience was a bit smaller, or a lot smaller … or not there at all.

But the reality is that the audience is a really important part of a presentation. At least, they are once the speaker has sufficient confidence to calm down, to stop worrying they’ll say something stupid, and to ‘read’ the audience. 

An attentive beekeeping audience

By observing the audience the speaker can determine whether they’re still interested and attentive. Not just in the topic (after all, they’re sitting there rather than disappearing to the coffee shop), but in particular parts of the presentation. 

Are you going too fast?

Have you lost their attention?

Was that fancy animated slide you spent 20 minutes on a dismal failure?

Did that last witty aside work … or did it crash and burn? 3

Almost none of which can be determined when delivering a Zoom-type online presentation 🙁

You can ‘see’ the audience.

Or parts of it.

Postage stamp-sized headshots, with poor lighting, distracting backgrounds 4 and enough pixelation to make nuanced judgements about boredom or even species sometimes tricky.

Is that a Labradoodle in the audience … or just another lockdown haircut?

Has the internet frozen … or has everyone simply fallen asleep?

It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.

Which makes the question and answer sessions even more important than usual.

Mixed abilities

My talks usually include a 5 minute intermission. Talking for an hour uninterrupted is actually quite tiring 5 and it’s good to make a cup of tea and gather my thoughts for ’round two’.

It also allows the audience to raise questions about subjects mentioned in the first half that left them confused.

Fortunately these ‘half time’ questions tend to be reassuringly limited in number 6.

Have a break, have a Kit Kat

However, at the end of the talk there is usually a much more extensive Q&A session. This often covers both the topic of the talk and other beekeeping issues. 

A typical audience contains beekeepers with a wide range of beekeeping experience. Enthusiastic beginners 7 jostle for screen space with ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ types who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

Inevitably this means the talk might miss critical explanations for beginners and omit some of the nuanced details appreciated by the more experienced. As the poet John Lydgate said:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time 8.

Think about this simple statement:

Varroa feed on the haemolymph of developing pupae.”

The beginner might not know what haemolymph is … or, possibly, even what Varroa is.

The intermediate beekeeper might be left wondering whether the mite also feeds on nurse bees when ‘crowdsurfing’ around the colony during the phoretic stage of the life cycle.

And the experienced beekeeper is questioning whether I know anything about the subject at all as I’ve not mentioned fat bodies and their apparently critical role in mite nourishment.

So I encourage questions … to help please a few more of the people 😉

You’re on mute!

In my experience these are best submitted via the ‘chat’ function. The host – an officer of the BKA or a technically-savvy member press ganged into hosting the talk – can then read them out to me.

Or I can … if I can find my glasses.

One or two beekeeping associations have a Zoom ‘add in’ that allows the audience to ‘upvote’ written questions, so that the most popular appear at the top of the list 9. This works really well and helps ‘please more of the people more of the time’.

The alternative, of asking the audience member to unmute their mic and ask the question is somewhat less satisfactory. It’s not unusual to watch someone wordlessly ‘mouthing’ the question while the host (or I) try and explain how to turn the microphone on.

Finally, it’s worth emphasising that the Q&A session is – as far as I’m concerned – one of the most helpful and enjoyable parts of the evening.

Enjoyable, because I’m directly answering a question that was presumably asked because someone wanted or needed to know the answer 10

Helpful, because over time these will drive the evolution of the talk so that it better explains things for more of the audience.

Anyway – that was a longer introduction than I intended – what sort of questions have been asked frequently this winter (and the talks they usually appeared in).

What do you define as a strong colony? (Preparing for winter)

Strong colonies overwinter better than weak colonies. They contain more bees. This means that the natural attrition rate of bees during the winter shouldn’t reduce the colony size so much that it struggles to thermoregulate the cluster

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

I also think large winter clusters retain better ‘contact’ with their stores, so reducing the chances of overwinter isolation starvation.

Strong colonies are also likely to be healthy colonies. Since the major cause of overwintering colony losses is Varroa and the viruses it transmits, a strong healthy colony should overwinter better than a weak unhealthy colony. 

Colony age structure from August to December.

However, you cannot necessarily judge the strength of a colony in June/July as an indicator of colony strength in the late autumn and winter.

This is because the entire population of bees has turned over during that period. 

A hive bulging with bees in summer might look severely depleted by November if the mite levels have not been controlled in the intervening period.

The phrase ‘a strong colony’ is also relative … and influenced by the strain of bees. Native black bees rarely need more than a single brood box. Compare them to a prolific carniolan strain and they’re likely to look ‘weak’, but if they’re filling the single brood box then they’re doing just fine.

When should I do X? (Rational Varroa control and others)

When usually means ‘what date?’

X can be anything … adding Apivar strips, uniting colonies, adding supers, dribbling oxalic acid.

This is one of the least satisfactory questions to answer but the most important beekeeping lesson to learn.

A calendar is essentially irrelevant in beekeeping.

Due to geographic/climatic differences and variation in the weather from year to year, there’s almost nothing that can be planned using a calendar.

Only three things matter, the:

  1. state of the colony
  2. local environment – an early spring, a strong nectar flow, late season forage etc.
  3. development cycle of queens, workers and drones

By judging the first of these, with knowledge of the second and a good appreciation of the third, you can usually work out whether treatments are needed, colonies united or supers added etc.

This isn’t easy, but it’s well worth investing time and effort in.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The last of these three things is particularly important during swarm control and when trying to judge whether (or when) a colony will be broodless or not. The development cycle of bees is effectively invariant 11, so understanding this allows you to make all sorts of judgements about when to do things. 

For example, knowing the numbers of days a developing worker is an egg, larva and pupa allows you to determine whether the colony is building up (more eggs being laid than pupae emerging) or winding down for autumn (or due to lack of forage or a failing queen).

Likewise, understanding queen cell development means you know the day she will emerge, from which you can predict (with a little bit of weather-awareness) when she will mate and start laying.

How frequently should you monitor Varroa? (Rational Varroa control)

This question regularly occurs after discussion of problematically high Varroa loads, particularly when considering whether midseason mite treatment is needed. 

Do you need to formally count the mite dropped between every visit to the apiary?

Absolutely not.

If you are the sort that does then be aware it’s taking valuable time away from your trainspotting 😉 12

The phoretic mite drop is no more than a guide to the Varroa load in the hive. 

Think about the things that could influence it:

  • A colony trapped in the hive by bad weather has probably got more time to groom, so resulting in an increased mite drop.
  • An expanding colony has excess late stage larvae so reducing the time mites spend living phoretically.
  • A shrinking colony will have fewer young bees, so forcing mites to parasitise older workers. Some of these will lost ‘in the field’ and more may be lost through grooming.
  • Strong colonies could have a much lower percentage infestation, but a higher mite drop than an infested weak colony. You need to act on the latter but perhaps not the former.
  • And a multitude of other things that really deserve a more complete post …

So don’t bother counting Varroa every week … or even every month.

Does what it says on the tin.

I think checking a couple of times a season – towards the end of spring and in mid/late summer – should be sufficient. You can do this by inserting a Varroa tray for a week, by uncapping drone brood and looking for mites, or by doing an alcohol wash on a cupful of workers (but these methods aren’t comparable with each other as they measure different things with different efficiencies). 

But you must also look for the damaging effects of Varroa and viruses at every inspection.

If there are significant numbers of bees with deformed wings – characteristic of high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) – then intervention will probably be needed. 

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

And if there are increasing numbers of afflicted bees since your last regular inspection it’s almost certain that intervention will be needed sooner rather than later.

I should add that I also count mite drop during treatment. This helps me understand the overall mite load in the colony. By reference to the late summer count I can be sure that the treatment worked. 

What do you mean by a quarantine apiary? (Bait hives for profit and pleasure)

This question has popped up a few times when I discuss moving an occupied bait hive and checking the health of the colony. 

A swarm that moves into a bait hive brings lots of things with it …

Up to 40% by weight is honey which is very welcome as they will use it to draw new comb. If there’s good forage available as well it’s unlikely the swarm will need additional feeding.

However, the swarm also brings with it ~35% of the mites that were present in the colony that swarmed. These are less welcome.

I always treat swarms with oxalic acid to give them the best possible start in their new home.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

More worrisome is the potential presence of either American or European foul broods. Both can be spread with swarms. The last things you want is to introduce these brood diseases into your main apiary.

For this reason it is important to isolate swarms of unknown provenance. The logical way to do this is to re-site the occupied bait hive to a quarantine apiary some distance away from other bees. Leave it there for 1-2 brood cycles and observe the health and quality of the bees.

What is ‘some distance?’

Ideally further than bees routinely forage, drift or rob. Realistically this is unlikely to be achievable in many parts of the country. However, even a few hundred yards away is better than sharing the same hive stand. 

If you keep bees in areas where foul broods are prevalent then I would argue that this type of precautionary measure is essential … or that the risk of collecting swarms is too great.

And how do you know if foul broods are prevalent in your area?

Register with the National Bee Unit’s Beebase. If there is an outbreak near your apiary a bee inspector will contact you.

Remember also that the presence of foul broods in an area may mean that the movement of colonies is prohibited.

‘Asking for a friend’ type questions

These are great.

These are the sort of questions that all beekeepers are likely to need to ask at sometime in their beekeeping ‘career’.

Typically they take the form of two parts:

  1. a description of a gross beekeeping error
  2. an attempt to make it clear that the error was by someone (anyone) other than the person asking the question 😉

Here are a couple of more or less typical ones 13.

  • My friend (who isn’t here tonight) forgot to remove the queen excluder and three full supers from their colony in August. Should I, oops, she remove them now?
  • Here’s an an entirely hypothetical scenario … what would you recommend treating a colony with in March if the autumn and midwinter mite treatments were overlooked?
  • Should my friend remove the Apiguard trays he a) added in November, or b) placed in his colonies before taking them to the heather?
  • I’d been advised by an expert beekeeper to squish every queen cell a few days after discovering my colony had swarmed in June. It’s now late September … how much longer should I wait for the colony to be queenright?

These are very good questions because they illustrate the sorts of mistakes that many beginners, and some more experienced beekeepers, make. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making mistakes. The problem comes if you don’t learn from them.

I’ve made some cataclysmically stupid beekeeping errors. 

I still do … though fewer now than a decade ago, largely because I’ve managed to learn from some of them.

Partly I learned from thinking things through and partly from asking someone else … “A friend has asked me why his colony died. Was it the piezoelectric vibrations from the mite ‘zapper’ bought from eBay or was the hive he bought not suitable?